Sexual harassment in the philosophy profession is intolerable, yet all-too-common, as we can see from the important collection of stories at What is it like to be a Woman in Philosophy?.
Moreover, there are many important figures in the profession whom their colleagues and students know to have engaged in various forms of sexual harassment on multiple occasions. Many of us have heard first-hand accounts of harassment from those who have been harassed; almost all of us have heard second-hand accounts from those who know the harassers or the harassed. In the case of some of these figures accused of harassment, the allegations come from a wide range of sources, sources who are more than willing to discuss the issue privately.
Institutional mechanisms provide little in the way of redress to the victims of such figures. Those who have been harassed, or worse, come forward in many cases, put themselves through a long and painful process, and if the figure is prominent it is very unlikely that any meaningful action will be taken. Given this systematic failure of formal mechanisms, it should not come us a surprise that many women get discouraged and drop out of the discipline along the way.
Thus the natural question is what, if anything, we can do informally.
We believe there are informal sanctions that could make a difference. The Feminist Philosophers blog recently suggested not inviting serial harassers to conferences. One could easily extend this to not inviting them to publish, not conversing with them at conferences, advising students to avoid their graduate program, etc. We can hope that such informal shunning would have a significant effect. Of course, without a naming and shaming mechanism this approach will be limited to folk somehow in the know.
By and large, however, philosophers have, to date, seemed unwilling to engage in such informal social sanctions. Of course there are some good reasons for this. One might not be convinced that the person in question actually did what they are said to have done. One might be in a vulnerable position and not want to risk reprisal But these explanations for inaction only go so far. There are many cases in which the behavior is well known to a wide range of people who are tenured and of substantial standing in their own right, and thus immune to immediate job threats.
So in light of this, we ask, what is to be done? It is impermissible to stand by while women – and occasionally men – in our profession are subjected to intolerable behavior. If the only thing standing in the way of acting is a desire to avoid confrontation, or the intellectual enjoyment of engaging with a smart colleague who is nonetheless a serial harasser, then the individual excuses for not engaging in informal sanctions do not outweigh the benefits to the profession. Moreover, if we do not get our house in order, the societies we inhabit will increasingly question our privileges.
So let us collectively consider what might be the best ways to confront this situation. Comments are open.
UPDATE: W 30 March 8:21 am, CDT: An article on efforts to fight sexual harassment in the philosophy profession, including reference to this post (which is only part of that campaign), is now online at Inside Higher Education (IHE).
UPDATE: W 30 March 10:05 pm, CDT: We will do a follow-up post next week, but we should also note right now that the "What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?" blog has other categories than that of sexual harassment. So the "good news" and "do try this at home" categories deserve attention too!
UPDATE: M 4 April 1:25 pm, CDT: our follow-up post is here.